There’s no shortage of primo fish to reel in from our state’s tens of thousands of inland lakes (including four of the largest lakes in the world) and 300-plus rivers. And yet, nothing compares to an oceanic jewel like fresh king or coho salmon. That’s where Fish Lads comes in — purveying only the finest fillets in Grand Rapids’ own Downtown Market. We talked with Jeff Butzow, owner of Fish Lads, about his aquatic philosophy and plans for the new meat emporium, Carvers, set up just a few feet away.
So you spent a good deal of time in Seattle working with fish. How’d that come about?
I grew up in Traverse City, went to school around Grand Rapids, and I just got tired of Michigan. I was 21 and had family in Seattle so I saved up some money and moved out there. I ended up going to Pike’s Place Market, saw the guys who throw fish and act all goofy and said, “That’s just not me.” I didn’t want to do that kind of corporate show.
What did you want to do?
I found a place down the hall called Pure Food. These guys were super laid back and had more of a natural attitude. They had a beautiful display and definitely knew what they were doing. I was checking things out and asked this older guy behind the counter if they needed any help. He looked at me and said, “Come back tomorrow at 7 and we’ll see how you do.” I came back the next morning at 7 a.m. and stayed there for the next nine years.
And then you pretty much packed up and drove across the country to start Fish Lads, right?
Yeah. I didn’t have a couple hundred thousand dollars to throw into a new business, so through a lot of negotiating, wiggling around and creating relationships, we made it happen.
My buddy from Seattle helped me drive and start things up here. We’d start at 6 in the morning and go until about 9 or 10 o’clock at night. For three months straight. [Laughter] It was crazy.
How does authenticity play into the Fish Lads model?
Whenever I go out some place and find someone immediately in my face trying to oversell me something, it makes me want to turn around. I’d much rather interact with someone in the same way you’d talk with your friends or your family.
And the same goes for our employees. I try not to impose a whole lot of structure on our guys because then you feel boxed in. Why not remove the box entirely and let people fall into their own?
Tell me about the case. There’s a lot going on up in there.
The whole experience — the fish, the ice, the way the display looks — there is a reason that it’s done that way and there’s a lot of psychology in it. Stack it high and watch it fly — it actually works. It throws people for a loop at first and they wonder what we do with all that product, which is funny to me because it’s never an issue. For one, the case is a storage unit in itself, but two, the biggest mistake you can make is leaving that case empty. That’s the flipside of perception.
And all of this is moving onto land, so to speak, with Carvers, correct?*
Yeah, right next door is going to have a lot of product from Snake River Farms, which works with a number of cattle farmers from Idaho, western Montana, Washington and Oregon. They’re the largest producer of American Kobe in the United States. We’re also going to have a line of grass-fed, Michigan-raised beef. We want to have a quality option for whatever you’re looking for.
That’s what I wanted to get at next, this discrepancy between the best ingredients and local ingredients.
Well, there’s all this hype over words that have become major buzzwords in the food industry. It happened to “organic.” The consumer wanted organic, so then everything became organic to the point that it wasn’t any longer. Unfortunately the same thing is happening to words like “local” or “sustainable.” They become words to market a business.
What really matters, then, if the labels aren’t really reliable?
What I care about most is: Wherever in the world that product is coming from, it had better be the best. Because when people bite into that Copper River King Salmon or the American Kobe, none of that matters anymore. There are people that will pay a premium for local products, and that’s perfectly fine, but if you’re going to pay top dollar for salmon or steak from us, it really is going to be the best your money can buy.
*Editor’s Note: Carvers is open now, but was still a work in progress at the time of this interview.